Monday, April 10, 2017

Remembering Canada's Army Chaplains at Vimy Ridge

This week, starting on Sunday, marks the centenary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge, when the Canadian  Corps, fighting together, achieved a significant victory on the Western Front during World War One.  Vimy is often regarded as part of Canada's coming of age as a post-colonial country, as this backgrounder in the New York Times explains.

Canadian historian Duff Crerar, an authority on Canadian chaplains in the Great War, has been regaling his friends with stories of how our padre ancestors supported the Vimy battle.  I have collected his emails and images below and am happy to present them.  MP+

Preparing for the Battle - 1

The First Canadian Division moved into its pre-Vimy quarters around the old Chateau of Ecoivres in mid-March. In the upstairs hall rested a large model of Vimy Ridge, which officers and men came through to study. In the garden was a billet filled up with tall racks of bunk beds, packing in almost 1500 men, with a high platform at one end, from which Canon Scott gave nightly lectures after the band played a brief concert. To keep morale up, he encouraged written questions to be handed up to him which he would try to answer in an uplifting way. The first night everyone had a good laugh at Scott’s expense when the note was read aloud without previewing or censorship: “When do you think this God dam war will be over, eh?” On April 4 the news came the America had joined the Allies, which partially answered the question that stumped him a few nights before.

Canon F.R. Scott, the senior chaplain with the First Division, wades through mud with some of his troops.   In his mid fifties, Scott was an old man in the trenches, and was famous for enduring hardship to be with the troops.

In the daytime, as Scott moved back and forth visiting trenches and headquarters, he often donned a private’s uniform, but still was easily identified by his white hair and clerical collar. All around him he noted the stacks of ammunition accumulating, pitying the horses which dragged heavy loads until some died of exhaustion. At night the road to Arriane Dump and the narrow plank road connecting it with the St. Eloi road was crowded with trucks, wagons, limbers, horses and men crowding each other in the blackout and often forcing each other off into the deep mud on either side. Through the tumult and furious cursing in the darkness the Senior Chaplain would make his way, joking that the horses and mules, at least, could not understand the profanity directed at them.
With permission of a local family, Scott fixed up a private shrine with canvas over the windows, which he dubbed “St. George’s Chapel”. Each morning at 0800 he celebrated Holy Communion, with the troops standing in and around the altar. Underneath a shell-battered crossroads named Maison Blanche, a large cavern sheltered one of the battalions in reserve, where Scott would drop in to hold services. Scott was famous for breaking up gambling when he encountered it, but one night men of the 16th, holding hot cards, promised to come if he let them finish their hand. After announcing that he would hold the service until the game was over, almost everyone there joined the service.
Behind the hamlet of Anzin the heavy guns and howitzers occasionally let loose, carefully seeking out their future targets, and startling bystanders not aware of their well-camouflaged hideouts. But enemy fire could still strike the best-concealed by chance. Canadian Railway troops died when a German shell hit their billets. Scott buried eleven of them on the hillside.

Chaplains of the 4th Division, Canadian Expeditionary Force, France 1917

Preparing for the Battle -2

From the Report of Major A.M. Gordon, Sr. Chaplain, 4th Canadian Division dated 17 March, 1917

All Unit commanders except for one have welcomed regular worship parades in 4th Division. During the trench raids in preparation for the main attack all his chaplains have been either in battalion Headquarters or Advanced Dressing Stations. Other chaplains maintained Chaplain Service coffee stalls where hot drinks were dished out to the men going forward or coming out of action. During the raid on 15 March, Chaplain George Farquhar served at the Regimental Aid Post with the Medical Officer, at the request of both the battalion commander and the M.O.
24 March, 1917: Sr. Chaplain Gordon to Acting Adjutant and Quartermaster General, Canadian Corps, requesting sites for Chaplain Service Coffee Stalls directly on the routes to be taken by the troops of 4. Canadian Division during the Vimy Attack, in areas relatively safe from shelling.
4 Division dispositions of Chaplains for Vimy Ridge Battle (Report by Major the Rev. A.M. Gordon, 4 Div. Sr. Chaplain)
  • 3 Protestant chaplains at the RAPs, 1 Protestant at the Advanced Dressing Station on the Arras Road, 2 Roman Catholic chaplains at relay point for ambulances and stretcher bearers, Two Protestant chaplains at the Main Dressing Station # 11 Canadian Field Ambulance, with two Roman Catholic chaplains alternating duty there for round the clock coverage. One Protestant chaplain will cover the #12 Field Ambulance, while one will serve as spare for coffee stall, burial party and battalion coverage. Gordon leaves his most junior chaplain in the office and goes forward to supervise and assist in the 4th Divisional front line area.
Chaplains in action

The Chaplains of the 2nd Division left extensive reports which can be matched with contemporary trench maps and aerial photographs to demonstrate how they followed the attacking troops, setting up aid posts and working with casualties in captured dugouts and trenches. D.E. Robertson’s report begins with jumping off with the second wave of attackers, accompanying medical officers and others setting up advanced posts on the far side of Thelus. From 1400 onwards Robertson and a Medical sergeant operated an advanced aid post in a dugout in Bois Carre, which treated men coming in from many battalions, and many wounded Germans as well. Robertson scrounged rations and a German camp stove and was able to provide hot and cold drinks to the wounded and the stretcher bearers. He stayed on in the dugout through the next few days “During all the time, I tried to speak a word of comfort or offer a prayer with the wounded. I took the names of home folks, and any messages they wished me to send. This meant writing scores of letters. Near Bois Carre I established a  cemetery primarily for the 4th battalion, It has been recognized by the Graves  Registration Commission. I buried twenty six men belong to the 14 and 31st Battalions, and of the Trench Mortar Battery. On the night of the 12th we moved back to the old German front line. “ The return was complicated by he and eight others taking turns bringing back a wounded German they had found in the bottom of a trench, nearly frozen The mud was so deep that it took several hours to get the man under shelter. Looking back, he noted that every soldier he had personally greeted the night before the attack had either been killed or had passed by him, smiling but wounded, going the other way after the battle.

Aerial photo of the Vimy battlefield, showing some of the trench systems.  Bois Carre, where Padre Roberton worked in a Regimental Aid Post and later buried some of the dead of the attack, is the dark square on the right middle.

George Wood, following Canon Scott’s directions, followed the 4th Battalion up Elbe Trench with the quartermaster to set up a coffee stall and food stand for the troops on the day of the attack. By the time of the attack he claimed all 800 men had been distributed a “pint of steaming hot coffee”. At 04.25 he went forward with the Battalion Headquarters and stretcher bearers, unhit by stray German shelling, though a direct hit killed the Adjutant and several other officers just ahead of him. Also killed was the Artillery Liaison officer for the 27th battalion, and while the medical officer remained behind to tend the wounded, Wood and the unit commander reached a dugout in Rocade Trench, where the forward Headquarters was to be located. The dugout was already too crowded with wounded, so the signallers and the commander moved on while Wood, with his scissors, gauze and iodine tried to tend the fifteen wounded men who had crawled into dugout. Two men who had been shot in the lung and groin he hastily bundled off to the rear on stretchers carried by German prisoners.
About two hours later Wood caught up with the medical officer and bearers in an aid post between the German second and third lines known as Bastion Tunnel. Here the air circulation was so poor that candles would not stay lit. the next morning he jointed Robertson at the Bois Carre aid post.
Remaining in the line, Wood and two companies of his battalion supported the 8th and 9th Battalion attacks on Farbus, and Arleux. He moved his aid post into Arleux, marvelling at how little damage had been done to the buildings, early in the battle. Three weeks later when he returned, it had been obliterated by the fighting.
During a lull in the shelling one night, Robertson left the Bois Carre dugout and tried to go over the freezing ground looking for wounded who might die of exposure. “I felt glad to think that all the wounded had mostly gotten in, for I found none anywhere. In one case I thought I had come on one, for half way down the entrance of a partially caved in German dugout, I saw a man sitting, his head bowed, and hands folded, and by his side a prayer book. I got no answer when I called, so I crawled down, for I felt sure he was still praying. He must have died so a little time before. He was a little German. Peace be to him”.

Bois-Carre Commonwealth Cemetery today.   It is the resting place for 232 Canadians killed at Vimy.  Bodies are still being discovered and identified today.

Mad Padre

Mad Padre
Opinions expressed within are in no way the responsibility of anyone's employers or facilitating agencies and should by rights be taken as nothing more than one person's notional musings, attempted witticisms, and prayerful posturings.


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